Dubravka Ugresic loves New York City. In the early 1990s, while Ugresic’s native Yugoslavia was splintering under civil war, she found herself migrating between Amsterdam and Middletown, Connecticut, with frequent stops in New York City.
But at the moment “it’s impossible to live in New York,” she claims. Is it the rent? The rapid gentrification? Maybe. But it’s also the weather. “We all walk like reptiles in the humidity,” Ugresic says in disgust. “So humid and so hot!”
These kinds of observations—simple yet unexpected and perfectly apt—form the spine of Ugresic’s work. Her latest book, American Fictionary (Sept. 25), is a new translation, by Celia Hawkesworth and Ellen Elias-Bursać, of essays she wrote for a Dutch newspaper in the early 1990s. Versions of these essays first appeared as Have a Nice Day: From the Balkan War to the American Dream in 1995. American Fictionary blows cobwebs out of mental corners you hadn’t even realized had gathered dust. Her insights into America and the urge for stability and belonging are sharp and incredibly prescient.
The essays find Ugresic suspended not only between countries, but between homelands. At the time, she didn’t even know how much longer “Yugoslavia” would exist. When it crumbled, would she be Croatian? Nothing at all?
“If a country does not exist, then what is happening there is not, actually, happening,” she writes. “There is no death, the leveled cities have not been leveled, there are no casualties, the refugees have not abandoned their homes, and the crazed generals of the Yugoslav Army also do not exist. Everything is as serene as in a movie’s frozen frame.”
At the same time, Ugresic was discovering American obsessions, such as jogging, orange juice, psychotherapy, and cable TV.
She examines America with the eyes of a great thinker and the heart of someone living through unimaginable trauma. “It seems to me, a foreigner forgetting for a moment where I’m from, that America is living through all the myths of all the cultures that came into being before her; that she is experiencing them passionately, collectively, in a fairy-tale, ignorant mish-mash, where the origin quoted is not important, what matters is the story,” she writes.
With global migration rising every day and an existential dread seeping into the most developed of countries, Ugresic’s words provide a type of solace. To get through dark times, we need observations that are at times funny, often tragic, but always honest.
Ugresic herself is worried about the future. “Post-apocalyptic, post-truth, post-history, post-modern. All those terms suggest we came to some end and now we’re facing the wall.”
Her answer lies in our capacity for imagination: “We should start using our intelligence to imagine a future community. How are we ever going to live? Because obviously this way of life is not satisfying anymore,” Ugresic says. “When I was a kid there was a lot of future. The future was in space. I believed, as a child, that because the dog Laika went to the moon we’d all go soon. I think imagination exists in spheres of science, medicine, ecology, but there’s a totally empty space, a dark space, when it comes to social imagination. How are we going to live? OK, we’ll live longer, that’s fine—but how?”
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher. His writing is widely published, and he recently completed his second novel.